A director’s filmography is almost never just one thing (unless you’re someone like Charles Laughton, obviously), as different movies are different beats with their own highs, lows, and in-betweens. Hong Kong filmmaker Wai Ka-fai is an example of that truth with a filmography that runs the gamut in regard to genre, critical success, commercial appeal, and lasting impact. It’s no stretch to say his best-remembered films are the ones co-directed by the great Johnnie To (Fulltime Killer, 2001; Running on Karma, 2003; Mad Detective, 2007), but he’s delivered some solid films on his own from Peace Hotel (1995) to Written By (2009). Wai is back after a thirteen-year hiatus from the director’s chair, and he’s once again flying solo. The bad news? Detective vs Sleuths is an absolute mess. The good news? It’s also entertaining as hell despite itself.
Lee Chun (Lau Ching Wan) was once a celebrated police detective, but a public outburst lambasting his superiors for bungling a case landed him in jail and off the force. After his release his descent towards delusion sent him even lower until he eventually took up residence under an overpass where he could spout his mad theories to his heart’s content. Nearly two decades later, though, a new rash of killings brings Lee back into the spotlight. These new victims are all accused murderers from past cases who got off due to shoddy police work. Clues left intentionally at the scene point police towards the next target, and soon Lee is butting his way into the ongoing investigation with mixed results. See, he has conversations with people who aren’t really there, both dead and alive, and sometimes he also sees winged demons?
Detective vs Sleuths is a ridiculous film. Action thrillers, whether from Hong Kong or not, often let logic slide in favor of style, suspense, and visceral impact, but this over-the-top romp never even lets logic in the door. That may understandably be a dealbreaker for some, but Wai and his equally mad cast and crew power right through the silliness to find the fun at the heart of the violence and bonkers antics. To be clear, this isn’t a comedy, but if you’re not laughing along with the mayhem you’re really not paying attention.
As with most of Wai’s films, he once again wrote the script for his latest endeavor, and it feels like something of a mash-up of 90s Hong Kong action and Wai’s later efforts like Mad Detective. We’re presented with multiple action scenes across the hundred-minute running time offering all manner of bloody carnage and opportunities for stunts. It often feels like chaos as hundreds of rounds can be fired without any hits only to see those same shooters display expert marksman skills in the very next scene. There’s a mean streak to the violence at times, and the mainland ideals regarding no “villains” escaping their fate leads to an unexpected death or two.
The script tying these beats together, though, is just nonsense. The elite police squad working the cases are prone to multiple acts of idiocy, and they repeatedly change their suspect list based on even the slightest breeze. The reason as to why these new killers, labeled sleuths by the police, are alerting the cops to their next target is never made clear. The sloppiness carries over into other areas too including a seventeen-year time-jump that sees most characters fail to age a day, wire-work that makes safety harnesses beneath their clothes abundantly clear, and skeletal remains dug up with the skull cap cut (ie it’s a lab specimen) clearly visible.
It’s no mistake that Wai reunites with his Mad Detective lead for Detective vs Sleuths, and Lau once again proves himself a stellar performer who’s game for absolutely melodramatic low or bonkers high. He yells half his dialogue, argues with ghosts — sometimes visible, other times not, and it’s in those latter instances where Lau is essentially arguing with himself as he simply turns his head to voice the characters in his head — and enters gun fights with only his finger pointing like a loaded weapon. The gag is well-executed as his “shots” appear to connect without him realizing there’s actually a cop shooting nearby with her very real gun.
Wai aims for an emotional weight to some of the events and reveals, but none of that lands despite Lau’s performance. It’s all just too stupid and nonsensical in its messy manipulations, and it seems to realize that in its final minutes as it fully embraces the silliness with a not-too subtle setup for a sequel. It’s yet to be seen if Detective vs Sleuths will earn the chance at a follow-up, but as it stands the film remains a big, dumb, overly dramatic ball of violent fun.
Related Topics: Fantasia Film Festival